2014 Guardian Travel Award Winners

Helen Skelton is very happy to meet InsideAsia's, James Mundy for the second time on the same night.

TV’s Helen Skelton is very happy to meet InsideAsia’s, James Mundy for the second time on the same night at the 2014 Guardian Travel Awards in Agadir, Morocco.

Just a quick post here to say a big ‘thank you’ to those of you who may have voted for us in the 2014 Guadian Travel Awards.

The reader voted awards ceremony took place in Agadir, Morocco (20-22 November) and we are delighted (and pleasantly surprised) to have received not one, but two of travel’s prestigious awards. InsideAsia’s Japan speicalist brand, walked away with the accolades at the long-established travel awards with readers voting InsideJapan as 2014 ‘Best Small Tour Operator’ -

Guardian awards

and ‘Best Online Booking Service’ -

Guardian awards

…with Japan also winning the ‘Best Long-haul country’ for the fourth year in a row. There’s good reason for that…

 

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The awards are testament to the vast amount of knowledge, service and pure passion for the country and culture that help the InsideJapan Tours team stand out from the rest. These characteristics spread across each of the InsideAsia Tours specialist brands which include InsideVietnam Tours and InsideBurma Tours.

Thanks for your votes everyone!

All Aboard Japan’s New Maglev Train!

It’s here: Japan’s first magnetic levitating bullet train, and it has just whisked its first ever passengers on a 500 kph (311 mph) journey between the towns of Uenohara and Fuefuki – a distance of 27 miles. And that’s not even as fast as it can go – in tests in 2003 it hit 581 kph (361 mph), smashing China’s previous record of 475 kph (296 mph).

It may sound like science fiction, but this is science FACT – and you can watch footage of the maglev’s maiden voyage (released by the BBC) below:

Japan’s high-speed rail network

I can’t talk about the new maglev without getting a few words in about Japan’s current high-speed rail network. Many’s the time that I’ve been sitting on a rail replacement bus all the way across London, forking over upwards of 70 quid for a ticket to Bristol, being glared at by a surly ticket officer, or turning up at my destination two hours late because my first train was late (which then made me miss my connecting train, even though that one was late too), when I’ve thought “this wouldn’t happen in Japan”.

Japan’s transportation system is so famous for its efficiency that it has become a cliche. Ask any foreigner in Japan what they love most about the country and I’ll bet my bottom dollar that they’ll mention some permutation of the following: the people, the food, and the public transport system. And that is because Japanese people are really nice, their food is delicious, and their public transport system is nothing short of godly.

Japan’s “bullet train”, called the Shinkansen 新幹線 in Japanese (this, by the by, translates as “new trunk line”, which is a pretty lame name compared to “bullet train” if you ask me), is one of the wonders of the modern world. Let me let you in on a few facts about the bullet train that will make you resent your current commute to work that little bit more:

  • The first Shinkansen line (the Tokaido Shinkansen, which still operates today), was opened in 1964. 1964! That’s fifty years ago this year.
  • Its maximum operating speed is 320 kph (200 mph). Granted, it’s no maglev, but let me tell you that is still bloody fast.
  • It was the world’s first, and continues to be the world’s busiest, high-speed rail network. Over its lifetime, it has transported over 10 billion passengers. (To give you a sense of scale, the current population of the world is about 7 billion. That means the bullet train has transported more passengers than there are people in the world today. Mind blown).
  • In 2012, Japan Rail reported that the Shinkansen’s average annual delay was 36 seconds – and wait – this includes delays caused by natural disasters. In 1997, the annual delay was just 18 seconds.
  • There have never been any fatalities due to derailments or collisions. Ever.

Phew. Take that British Rail.

And what the facts and figures don’t tell you is that travelling on the bullet train is an exciting and enjoyable experience in itself. Not only does it arrive on time and get you from A to B faster than you can say “please can I have a cup of coffee with my sandwich” – the staff are faultlessly polite (they even bow every time they leave the carriage), it’s clean (you can use the loos without holding your breath), they play a cheery little jingle at every station, and they bring a snack trolley down the aisle every hour or so. And compared with trains in the UK, it’s not even expensive!

Anyway, that’s quite enough of my panegyric to the bullet train for one blog post. I’m sure you’re all excited to hear about what the maglev has in store.

Two icons of modern Japan: the bullet train and Mount Fuji

Two icons of modern Japan: the bullet train and Mount Fuji

What’s this new-fangled maglev thingamajig?

“Maglev” is short for “magnetic levitation”, which is a kind of transportation that carries vehicles using magnets instead of wheels. This means maglev trains don’t actually touch the tracks, which means much less friction – and consequently a helluvalot more speed.

Maglev may sound like it belongs in a sci-fi movie, but it’s not even a very new concept. Japan has been testing its maglev trains for decades, and the first commercial maglev line opened for business in Shanghai in 2004 – running at speeds of up to 431 kph (268 mph). Considering that a couple of hundred years ago people thought that you’d die if you went faster than 8 mph, the human race has come a pretty long way in a pretty short space of time. And thanks to the maglev, we will soon be able to go a VERY long way in a VERY short space of time.

Nay-sayers question the need for such an expensive, super-high-speed service is needed when Japan already has such a super-quick train network and frequent domestic flights (not to mention a steadily decreasing population), and to be honest, one does have to wonder. But I’ll leave such speculation to the economics boffs, because frankly all I care about is going really fast.

Japan's maglev

Japan’s maglev

When can I have a go??!!?

Unfortunately, not for a good long while. According to a recent article in the Japan Times, Construction is expected to begin on the maglev track between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027, and is expected to be extended to Osaka by 2045 – just five years shy of the Shinkansen’s centenary. So basically… don’t hold your breath.

500 kph… pshhh. I’m not impressed. Show me a train that goes at 5,000 kph – then maybe I’ll be impressed.

Oh yeah? Well get this: never one to be left behind, China is already testing a “Super-maglev” concept train that would work the same as a maglev, but would be encased in a vacuum tube to eliminate speed limitations caused by air resistance. Also called a “Vactrain“, these could theoretically reach speeds of up to 6,400-8,000 kph (4,000-5,000 mph). That means you’d be able to get from Beijing to New York in just a couple of hours.

Proposed "vactrain" tube

Proposed “vactrain” tube

And if that isn’t amazing, I really don’t know what is…would be nice if Japan could do it first though :-)

Futurama = Reality

Futurama = Reality

Three Reasons To Choose a Small Group Tour

Getting into local life
As an independent traveller, I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant about joining a small group tour. I’ve been on tours before, but it wouldn’t normally be my number one choice to travel with a group. However, having joined InsideJapan’s Japan Unmasked tour for a few days, I can now see that there are massive benefits to joining a small group tour instead of going it alone.

1. Stress-free sightseeing
Your full-time Tour Leader will take all of the stress out of travelling around from place to place, and will be there to either show you the sights or point you in the right direction if you wish to do your own thing. You have the best of both worlds, in that there is an expert to deal with all the logistics of travel, and yet you have the freedom to do as you please and don’t have to be herded around in a massive group or squeezed uncomfortably onto a hot bus at any point during the trip. Yes, you can have your matcha roll cake and eat it too!

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

Our Tour Leader sharing some brief Japanese history with the group

2. The Group
Travelling in a group of people you don’t know can be slightly intimidating at first, especially as a solo traveller. However, InsideJapan’s small group tours attract all different kinds of customers from all over the world, and joining a tour group is a great way to make new friends and share experiences. You all have Japan in common, and probably all have different reasons for wanting to visit Japan. For some it will be another country to tick off their list of places visited, and for others it will be a life-long dream come true to visit Japan because of a particular interest in some aspect of Japanese culture. Together you can share experiences and knowledge, and try new things!

Tour Group at Sensoji

Your Tour Leader might turn out to be something of a celebrity…

3. Getting beneath the surface
InsideJapan’s motto is ‘get beneath the surface’, and there’s no better way to do that than with an expert Tour Leader by your side. As someone who has travelled in Japan quite extensively I would consider myself something of an expert. However, after just one evening with our expert Tour Leader I realised there was still so much to learn! Whether it was finding new items on the menu in the izakaya, hearing a snippet of history for the first time, or simply visiting somewhere new, your Tour Leader will certainly help you to get the most out of your time in Japan!

Cultural experiences in an izakaya...

Cultural experiences in an izakaya…

Finally, if like me, you’re quite an independent traveller but like the idea of joining a small group tour, why not do both? No matter how much you fit in whilst you are on tour, you will always wish you had just a little more time in Tokyo or the chance to visit just one more destination, so why not add on a few extra nights of independent travel after your tour. By the time the tour finishes you’ll be something of an expert yourself, and ready to take on Tokyo alone (armed with your tailor-made Info-Pack of course!).

Japanese Hamsters

We are keen to expose all things Japanese on our blog. This doesn’t just mean features about travel, but all elements of interesting and sometimes quirky culture from the Land of the Rising Sun….and so I come on to something that I never thought I would be blogging about…Hamsters. Yes. I do mean those little furry creatures that make popular pets. The reason that I am writing about hamsters, is all down to my latest favourite Twitter feed from Japan.

@kawamabesatou has a massive 58k followers on Twitter. Why so popular you may ask?….Who doesn’t want to see lots of pictures of various breeds of hamster in a miniature bar or perhaps a tatami room with miniature bottles of alcohol, sushi, kitchen utensils and more. This guy has gone to a lot of trouble making miniature models for his little hamsters to set them up in little hamster versions of the human world that we live in. Forget hamster wheels – pah!

This picture gives you an idea as to the scale of @kawamabesatou’s work.

Minature

I suppose that this all goes back to IJTBen’s piece on Japan’s obsession with miniaturising things.

This guy means business though and his pictures are hilarious. Here’s the life of of @kawamabesatou’ s hamsters at the bar, at various restaurants and at home…

A bit of food

Yakisoba

hamster10

Sandwhich

Hamster and sake

Over done it again

Time for coffee

Spot of reading

hamster9

hamster home

All pictures are from @kawamabesatou Twitter feed. Otsukare sama!

Japan’s 10 most awesome animals and where to find them

The Japanese archipelago straddles a wide range of climates, from the subarctic snowscapes of northern Hokkaido to the subtropical jungles of Okinawa in the south, and over 70% of its land mass is mountainous and undeveloped. Thanks to these conditions, Japan is home to a more interesting host of fauna than you might think.

The following are Japan’s most fascinating birds and beasts (according to me), and where to find them:

The Japanese Macaque

Onsen-bathing snow monkeys on my visit to Yudanaka in February

Onsen-bathing snow monkeys on my visit to Yudanaka in February

The Japanese Macaque, or “snow monkey” as they are often known, is probably Japan’s most famous furry resident, and the world’s northernmost-living primate (besides humans).

Monkeys may be pretty exciting for those of us who live in monkeyless parts of the world, but macaques are actually a very familiar sight in Japan. You certainly won’t have to hunt very hard to find them!

Considering their prevalence it’s hardly surprising that monkeys feature quite prominently in traditional Japanese culture and religion – appearing as the protagonists in numerous folk tales, paintings, carvings, prints and so on. Perhaps the most famous Japanese monkeys are the “three wise monkeys” to be found in a carving at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, warning all comers to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

The famous three wise monkeys of Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

The famous three wise monkeys of Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

Where to see them: The monkeys of Jigokudani in Yudanaka Onsen are particularly famous for bathing in the hot spring waters to keep warm, but you can also spot macaques in most mountainous parts of Japan where human development is minimal.

Deer

My deer selfie, taken in Nara earlier this year

My deer selfie, taken in Nara earlier this year

Far from being shy and difficult to spot, the sika deer is so common in Japan today as to be overabundant. If you pay a visit to either Nara or Miyajima, you’ll find deer seemingly almost as populous as people, and tame enough to stroke. In Nara, where a herd of over 1,000 deer roam the streets freely, you can even buy special crackers (called ‘shika senbei’) to feed them.

Deer are also gross. I caught this one licking a urinal in Miyajima.

Deer are also gross. I caught this one licking a urinal in Miyajima.

According to the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods and are thus sacred – killing one of these deer was punishable by death until 1637. After WWII the deer were officially stripped of their “sacred” status (who knew that was possible?) and designated as a national treasure instead.

Where to see them: Whilst you are most likely to see shika deer in Miyajima and Nara, you can also spot them in numerous other locations in Japan – from northern Hokkaido to the forests of Yakushima, and can even be found swimming between the Kerama Islands of Okinawa!

Racoon dog (Tanuki)

Real tanuki

Real tanuki

You have probably never heard of a tanuki, but if you go to Japan you’re guaranteed to see hundreds of them. Well, sort of.

The tanuki is a kind of raccoon dog (which, confusingly, is not closely related to a raccoon) native to Japan, and has featured prominently in folklore since folklore began. In legend, the tanuki is a master of shapeshifting –typically mischievous and jolly, but also absentminded and gullible.

A typical tanuki statue I can across in Inuyama

A tanuki statue I can across in Inuyama

In Japan today, tanuki statues are ubiquitous – standing outside shops, restaurants, izakaya pubs and other establishments to bring luck and prosperity to the business. The tanuki has eight special traits to look out for, including a hat to protect against trouble or bad weather, a sake bottle, a big belly and (of course) a giant scrotum.

Tanuki statues traditionally have giant b?$%!*ks to symbolise prosperity and good fortune. If you really want to know why, some of the history is explained by Alice Gordenker of the Japan Times here.

Traditional art depicting a tanuki whose large scrotum is being attacked by birds for some reason I wish I understood

This tanuki’s large scrotum seems to be being attacked by birds for some reason I wish I understood

If you’re a Ghibli fan, you may even have seen the film Pom Poko - where a tanuki use their shape-shifting abilities (and gigantic scrotums) to protect their community from human developers. It’s a very strange film. In the English dub, the scrotums are called ‘pouches’ – but don’t let that fool you.

pom poko 2

pompoko1

Real tanuki have proportionately average balls, have strong social bonds and live in monogamous pairs, which is just lovely. They even cuddle up together when they hibernate!

Where to see them: Tanuki live all over Japan, sometimes even in urban areas. There are even rare white Tanuki in Miyajima which you may see scuttling around. If you don’t spot a real tanuki, you will most certainly notice their statues everywhere you go in Japan!

Leopard Cats

The Tsushima Leopard Cat

The Tsushima Leopard Cat

 

Japan is home to two critically endangered subspecies of leopard cat – a kind of wild cat roughly the size of a domestic cat, distinguishable by its leopard-like spots and distinctive facial markings. They may look similar to your ordinary house cat, but in actual fact these species diverged hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The Iriomote cat is found exclusively on Iriomote Island, where there are fewer than 250 of them left. With only 290 square kilometres to call home, they also have the smallest natural habitat of any wild cat.

A taxidermied Iriomote wildcat

A taxidermied Iriomote wildcat

Tsushima Island, off the coast of Kyushu, also harbours a population of endemic leopard cats – the Tsushima leopard cat. With only 80 to 100 left, these are even more endangered than the Iriomote cat.

 Where to see them: Even if you do visit one of these two locations, you’re very unlikely to spot either cat as they are rare and predominantly nocturnal – but you will see signs warning you to watch out for them on the roads, so you never know!

A road sign warning drivers in Iriomote to watch out for wild cats

A road sign warning drivers in Iriomote to watch out for wild cats

If you still have a hankering to see cats, you can visit one of Japan’s notorious “cat islands”, Tashirojima and Aoshima. These island cats certainly aren’t endangered – in fact, due to the local belief that feeding cats will bring prosperity, they’re absolutely rampant. These are feral cats, not wild cats, and the islands (especially Tashirojima) have become an unexpected tourist attraction because of them. You can even stay in a cat-shaped house if you come to visit! Read more about it here.

Red-crowned cranes

Japanese Cranes

Japanese Cranes

Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest island and one of its wildest areas; sparsely populated and characterised by sweeping mountain ranges, bubbling volcanic hot springs and wide open plains. It is here, during the winter months, that you are in with a chance of spotting the rare tancho, or red-crowned crane, as it performs its distinctive mating dance – a graceful and seemingly choreographed ritual that never fails to impress visitors.

The tancho was thought to be extinct in Japan until 1926, when a group of around 20 birds was found living near Tsurui in Hokkaido. Thanks to conservation efforts they have since made a dramatic recovery and now number around a thousand birds.

In Japanese folklore, the cranes are said to grant favours in return for acts of sacrifice, and are thought to live for 1,000 years.

Where to see them: Tsurui, Hokkaido. Our Winter Highlights tour visits the crane sanctuaries, or you can contact us to add a special visit to a fully tailored trip.

Sea turtles

A turtle I spotted whilst diving off Okinawa last November

A turtle I spotted whilst diving off Okinawa last November

Further south is another amazing opportunity to see wildlife in action. Yakushima, the densely forested island that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, is one of only a few places in the world to provide a spawning ground for Loggerhead and Green sea turtles.

Under the supervision of local conservationists, visitors to Yakushima can watch as the turtles come to lay their eggs, or even see the tiny baby turtles as they hatch and make their way down to the sea. This is a truly incredible event to witness, and especially amazing when you consider that each hatchling only has a 1/5,000 chance of surviving long enough to produce their own young.

Where to see them: Yakushima has a number of beaches that are good for turtle-watching, and you can take turtle tours throughout the summer. You can also swim with sea turtles whilst diving or snorkelling around the Okinawa Islands – as pictured!

Pika

A pika

A pika

The pika is a tiny mammal akin related to rabbits and hares, with short limbs, round ears and no tail. It’s also known as the “whistling hare” due to its high-pitched alarm call and lives in cold climates across the world.

Some sources have suggested that the pika was the inspiration for the famous Japanese icon Pikachu, but according to series producer Satoshi Tajiri, the name actually comes from a combination of two onomatopoeic Japanese words: “pika”, the sound an electric spark makes, and “chu”, the sound a mouse makes. Boo.

pikachu

Where to see them: Like many of the other animals on this list, you probably won’t see a pika in the wild as they’re pretty shy and only come out at dusk and dawn.

Japanese giant hornets vs. Japanese bees

 

A giant Japanese hornet

A giant Japanese hornet

This next entry is a creepy crawly you certainly won’t want to spot on your travels. Japan is home to the world’s largest hornet, the Japanese giant hornet – which is known as the “giant sparrow bee” in Japanese. This behemoth can reach more than 4.5cm (1.8in) in length, with a wingspan greater than 6cm (2.4in). These hornets are so terrifyingly huge and evil that they even eat other bees – a single hornet can kill 40 European bees in a minute. Oh and they also kill more people in Japan than any other animal.

So the giant hornet is pretty scary, but in my opinion the humble Japanese bee is much, much more awesome. To prevent giant hornets from attacking them like the poor European bees, they have devised an incredible defence – the bee ball.

 

B-Ball

B-Ball

Bee Ball

Bee Ball

When a scout hornet approaches their hive ready to tell all his hornet friends to come round for lunch, the bee workers will retreat into the hive, leaving a hole large enough for the hornet scout to enter. Once the hornet is inside, the bees come out of their hiding places in a swarm and form a tight ball around the hornet, vibrating their wings to direct warm air over their bodies and into the centre of the ball. The effect is similar to a convection oven, and the invader is cooked alive while the bees survive.

You might think that this is kind of twisted, but I think it is really and truly amazing. Read more about it on the National Geographic if you dare.

Where to see them: Yeah… I’d say don’t go looking. They are mainly found in rural areas and you’re very unlikely to come across one on your holiday!

 Giant Salamander

Giant Japanese Salamander

Japanese Giant Salamander

It may look like it belongs in Jurassic Park, but this massive freshwater-dwelling beast is alive and well in the streams of Japan today. In Japanese it is called the “giant pepper fish” (due to the milky substance they excrete when threatened, which smells like pepper).

Japanese giant salamanders can reach a whopping 1.5m (5ft) in length, and are surpassed in size only by the Chinese giant salamander, a close relative (these monsters can reach a length of 1.8m (5.9ft), which really is enough to terrify anyone). Feeding on insects, frogs and fish, and lacking any natural competitors or predators, the salamander can live to a ripe old age of around 80 years.

Where to see them: You’re unlikely to spot one of these on your travels as they tend to hide out in streams, but occasionally they can stray into urban waterways and even crawl out of the water – as one Japanese schoolboy found out near Kyoto earlier this year! (They are harmless to humans, so there’s no need to panic if this does happen to you.)

Traditional ukiyo-e woodblock print of a giant salamander being vanquished by a samurai

Traditional ukiyo-e woodblock print of a giant salamander being vanquished by a samurai

 

 

Spider crab

Spider Crab

Spider Crab

Finally, we come to the spider crab, the world’s largest arthropod and undeniably the most lovable animal on this list. Which is hardly surprising, given that it is a combination between the world’s cuddliest critters: the spider and the crab.

It lives in the waters around Japan, can weigh up to 19kg (42lb) and its leg span can reach up to 3.8m (12ft). Somewhat adorably, Wikipedia claims that “it is reported to have a gentle disposition, despite its ferocious appearance”. Nawwww.

Where to see them: You are unlikely to spot any of these friendly fellows even if you are a diving nut, as the shallowest depth at which they can be found is around 50m (150ft) – but you can see them at any one of Japan’s excellent aquariums. We especially recommend Osaka Aquarium!

Himeji Castle revisted

Wonderful Himeji-jo, Japan’s biggest and best preserved original samurai castle is now back on our radar, hurrah!

Himeji-jo

Himeji-jo

Continue reading

Tokyo Halloween

Our guide Masa was taking some customers around Tokyo introducing them to some of the sights and experiences of this great city. They visited Shiba Rikyu garden, contrasted it with a trip through Akihabara, admired some Ikebana flower arranging at Meji Jingu, shopped in Harajuku and then went to Shibuya.

Today was no normal day in Shibuya. The date is October 31st….HALLOWEEN.

Halloween is of course a festival adopted by the Japanese from the west. What ever we can do, they often tend to do better. This is what they saw – Zombies take over in Shibuya.

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Halloween in Tokyo

Happy Halloween from Tokyo!

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